Sunday, September 19, 2010

Adam Smith On Religion

[Lost Legacy has been beset by computer problems, which started on Thursday and lasted until Saturday, and were eventually traced (outside) to the cable system (we lost all TV programmes too.]

On checking the Google Alerts for ‘Adam Smith’ across the world’s media, I can report a uniform parade of trivia, not worth commenting upon, hence I won’t.

I can mention, instead, some of my desk research this week. I am more than halfway through Alistair McGrath’s, ‘Christian Theology’, which is a revealing, well written, summary of the origins, elaborations, and rows among the ‘saints’ of the doctrines that constitute its historic theology. This, in part, is for my chapter on ‘Adam Smith and Religion’ in the forthcoming ‘Adam Smith Handbook’ (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Theology is a vast subject. It seems to provoke great passions among religious folk and non-believers alike, especially when and where they attempt, and usually fail at, dialogue. This is true of all religions, for with any particular religion, there have been deep splits and associated high-levels of hostility (including murderous incidents, even whole eras).

Writing about Adam Smith and religion (and presenting papers on the subject) courts semi-hostile responses among some scholars. I am aware of these risks and have tried to avoid provoking such responses.

I was reminded this week, in correspondence from a Christian scholar, that it was necessary to recognise that Adam Smith’s writings were unambiguously influenced by the religious environment in which he lived in Scotland (including in the home that he shared with his devout Protestant mother, for much of his life and the institutions in which he worked or in which tried to exert influence). These religious influences and pressures re-appear in his writings.

However, this fact – and it is a fact, as any acquaintance with Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth Of Nations (1776), shows – does not ‘prove’ that Adam Smith was religious himself. He wrote as he did for good personal reasons (some of the evidence for which is presented in my paper).

It is my assertion that Smith ‘hid’ well his scepticism about theology, but not completely nor too overtly. Careful reading of his texts indicate a less than overwhelming conviction on his part that the doctrines of the Church, in which he grew up with, were worthy of his personal beliefs. His qualifications are too numerous, their perspectives too consistent, for religious persons to claim him as one of their own. It is not any single, particular sentence that supports my view; it is the cumulative evidence of many sentences that show a definite trend to downplay the theology of the day.

I have attempted to show this in my paper, ‘The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology’ (to be published in 2011), which I presented to the University of Richmond (Virginia) Summer Institute in June 2009. In fact, it is clear from careful reading of his books, and from details of his biography, that Adam Smith was not a believer in Revealed Religion. Moreover, Smith also includes language similar to those based on Providence, Deism and Natural Religion, which inclines some scholars to believe that he held views drawn from these doctrines, but again, his language in these cases also suggests he was not as committed to these doctrines whole heartedly.

The many ambiguities in the way he writes that are the basis of my case that his real views were hidden in his statements on theology and that those who insist that he was religious confuse his acting under the necessary influences on him with commitments to the private beliefs he held. He was a teacher and he was tasked with teaching his students about these doctrines, which he did. His language suggests implied caveats about their credibility.

My correspondent reminded me of the distinction between evidence of an influence and evidence of a personal belief. I agree and understand this.

I will be happy enough if I persuade other scholars that in Smith’s case he wrote in the language of the religious age he lived in, but this is not proof that he actually agreed with the sentiments of that language.

Undoubtedly, if he had not made the public oath of the Westminster Calvinist Confession, in 1751, (and his sponsors for the Chair had not privately assured the University Senate beforehand that if appointed he would take the oath), he would never had been appointed as a Professor at Glasgow, or any other, British University, and nor would either of his books have been published in 18th-century Britain.

Those living in a more secular age, or protected by the separation of Church and State, and who enjoy freedom of speech, tend to censorious of his conduct.



Blogger Andrew Revkin said...

Seeking up-to-date contact info for you, Gavin.

3:25 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Try: gavink9 AT gmail DOT com


5:45 pm  
Blogger Doleys said...

Very convincing! But no brain starts from zero. It is astonishing, that not in islamic, not in hinduistic, buddhist, not in animism, Bahai, shintoism environment etc. liberal thinking emerges. There probably only exists a religio-psychological connection, to which Max Weber refers to in his essays on protestant sects and the spirit of capitalism, and, somehow different, but similar:
Michael Beintker, Calvin und der Weg zur modernen Demokratie und
Wirtschaftsordnung, in: Hanna Kasparick (Hg.), Johannes Calvin. Umstrittener
Kirchenreformer und Vater der Moderne. Wittenberger Sonntagsvorlesungen, Wit-
tenberg 2009, 64–83.

1:17 pm  
Blogger Michael Kruse said...

It has struck me that Smith clearly grew up in a Christian milieu where Christian categories and narratives were all about. It is the backdrop to the events. But that does not make Smith a Christian per se. I've never thought of Smith as being an orthodox Christian.

As someone who is very interested with the intersection of religion and economics, I look forward to your publication.

9:17 pm  

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